Musings of a domesticated scholar

Category: profs

Ælfric and the Rabbit Hole

Welcome back, readers!

I’m working on my  first dissertation chapter–about seafaring saints in Old English hagiography–and I wanted to share my initial experiences. This post is a rant about my frustrations, a suggestion about how others might avoid my pitfalls, and a declaration of my intention to renew the study of Old English by making it–and its contexts– more accessible.

My research strategy was clear: 1) find the Old English saints’ lives that feature boats; 2) close read said texts; 3) find their original Latin sources and compare them; 4) make claims about the seafaring saints’ stories and their analogs.

This is all pretty standard, yes? I’d just go to my editions of hagiography and look at the footnotes. For the Old English Martyrology, this is precisely what I did. Using Christine Rauer‘s “Edition, Translation, and Commentary” I was able to find relevant saints’ tales and their sources. TA-DA!

And then I went back to Ælfric. I have Skeat’s Lives of Saints, whose hagiographic works are  most relevant to my project, and took cursory notes on the Catholic Homilies. Now, Skeat doesn’t give much background on the LS, and the edition is from the late nineteenth century. What followed were days and days and days of fruitless research and of course, all that persistent self-doubt that hitches a ride on these frustrating pursuits.


Eventually, though,  I discovered Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts, and it changed everything.  If you want to write on Ælfric, you need this book. 


Why, you ask?

For the introduction, at the very least. E. Gordon Whatley guides his readers through the Ælfrician canon and the issues attending its many sources in “An Introduction to the Study of Old English Prose Hagiography: Sources and Resources.” His chapter follows “from published Old English  texts to largely unpublished Latin manuscripts” but maintains “its underlying theoretical bias: that English saints’ legends are best read in relation to their individual Latin source texts and in the larger context of Latin hagiography in England and Europe in the early medieval period” (4). Next, he includes a list of “all the texts of individual saints’ lives in OE prose”– a great resource for someone like me who has trouble keeping things straight. The list includes the short title and the text’s id number according to Cameron and Franks’s Plan.

Wait, what plan? “A Plan for the Dictionary of Old English,” which is reviewed here. You might notice that the second paragraph begins by discussing the 280-page “List of Old English Texts” which makes up the third chapter. Is there no better name for this massive document than “Plan”? And why doesn’t every student who’s taken a course in Old English  know about it? Or, even more worrisome, does everyone else know about it? Just how isolated am I?

I didn’t even realize there was a Plan until this week. And this is in part because of how Old English is taught. Once we’ve learned the grammar (and if we do, it’s with no thanks to Bright and Cassidy’s confounding book), we read at first from anthologies. The best of these is Elaine Treharne‘s because it introduces each text within its manuscript context. But of course, the leap from introduction to advanced research is a big one to make, and especially difficult to do on one’s own. It seems to me that  Old English courses should begin in the library, and move out from there. Explain first the bibliographic information, then the manuscript record, and then get to the texts.

Whatley’s explanation of his list illustrates just how complex the field is, even when only pertaining to Ælfric: 

“For reasons of space and redundancy, I have not given manuscript information or, in most cases, citations of printed editions; both are supplied at the appropriate place in the PlanI (which does not, however, include references to Godden’s later edition of ÆCH II). Editions printed since the publication of the Plan may be located in the bibliography of Luke Reinsma for Ælfrician texts and that of Karen Quinn and Kenneth Quinn for non-Ælfrician texts (see second edition), but I have included references (in the Notes) to important editions not mentioned in the Plan, Reinsma, or Quinn and Quinn” (4). 

He recommends other bibliographic resources and clearly articulates particular elements of the  Plan. Then, bless him, he takes us through the many steps of researching an Ælfrician life. Below is a summary of the steps, with my reactions/objections in italics:

  1. Pick a saint
  2. Find the source (passio, probably)
  3. Check an encyclopedia such as Bibliotheca Sanctorum
  4. Consult Books Known to the English, Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture-What happened to SASLC? Is it ongoing? Why can’t I find much about it on their website?
  5. Recall 19th century groundwork: Forster for Legends in CH; Ott for Skeat’s first volume of LS
  6. Consult Acta Sanctorum, a compilation by Bollandists, of “vitae  or passiones of nearly all the known saints of the Christian Middle Ages whose feast days occur from January through November” (10).  What about December?   “Although Acta Sanctorum remains the greatest single collection of hagiographic texts, it is also, like J.-P. Migne’s more familiar library of patristic texts, Patrologia Latina, out of date and deficient by modern scholary standards…[Its] editions of late classical and early medieval texts…are not usually representative of the sort of texts that Anglo-Saxons such as Aldhelm or Ælfric used in their own hagiography” (10-11).Great.
  7. Look for your specific saint in Analecta Bollondiana,another 19th c Bolandist publication, which “publishes articles in the whole field of hagiography…” Although “working through copious indices of notices of one’s chosen saint, text, or manuscript can be tedius,” it is nevertheless “necessary and invariably rewarding…for anyone in the early stages of a hagiographic project” (11). EARLY STAGES? I’M AT STEP 7! 
  8. Find the Bollandists’ monograph series, Subsidia Hagiographica, which “includes editions of longer texts, special studies, and catalogues of hagiographic texts in medieval mss in the larger and smaller libraries of Europe”.  For my purposes, “catalogues of the libraries of Paris, Brussels, and Rome, which include manuscripts of insular origin, some of the most significant of which, for hagiorgaphy in ASE, have only recently begun to be recognized as insular” (11).
  9. Read this against a) Delehaye’s “classic popular introduction to hagiographic literature” and b) Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (BHL), an alphabetical listing of all the Christian saints, Eastern as well as Western, whose lives are preserved in Latin” (11, 12). But once I find the number, how do I find the actual source? Am I using their database all wrong?
  10. Check the Bollandists’ 2 supplements, which relate recensions, new printed editions, studies, and issues in numbering.
  11. Backtrack: Many saints’ lives come from Greek anyway. Look at Siegmund and Berschin. Footnote reveals that Siegmund writes (not surprisingly) in German. Thankfully, Berschin translated by Frakes: Greek Letters and the Latin middle Ages from Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa).
  12. Ooops! Early MSs of England are rare and Bollandists aren’t cataloguing English libraries anyway. Damnit!
  13. Retrieve Zettel’s unpublished dissertation from library (in my case, I asked my cousin at UVA to send me their copy, since no schools in North Carolina had one).  Zettel finds that the Cotton-Corpus Legendary was actually written after Aelfric, but “appears to derive from a collection of saints’ lives, a legendary in effect, in use in late tenth-century England, which in turn derived from a ninth-century continental collection” (14). Why am I doing this? What’s the point? We’ll never figure any of this out. This is stupid. I’m stupid. Arrrgghhh.
  14. Take courage from Whately’s tip to look at Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Harley 3020, Paris BN Lat. 5574, ff.1-39, BN Lat 10861.

So these are the steps one takes to track down an Ælfrician source. I wish there were a more streamlined way to go about this research, but as of now, I rely on this book, my dissertation director, and my fellow medievalists.

In related news, I will be updating and reformatting the Taxonomic Chart of Medieval Research Tools next week, in hopes of contributing a solution to the problem I have raised here. I welcome all recommendations for websites, databases, and even BOOKS you think should be included.

Until then, wishing you each success in discovering the light at the end of your tunnel.

Baby rabbit

A manifesto

I’ve recently contributed to HASTAC’S Future of Higher Education Forum, “inspired by a recent workshop called Rethinking Humanities Graduate Education, which was organized by the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI)” (

We were asked, 

“If you could change one component about your own academic program, what would it be, and why?”  

You can bet your next holiday Starbucks drink that I was (and have been for some time) quite ready to answer. 

via Debra Rae Cohen

Here’s a brief run-down of my experiences, disappointments, and minor miracles over the past few years. At the end you’ll find my mini-manifesto on graduate education. 

What do you think? What would you change? I open these questions to those within and outside of academia because I think it’s an important question to raise about one’s professional development track, no matter what the profession is. 

Answer: coursework/exams

 had a great two years in my master’s program, but found my PhD program difficult from the very start. I’ve spent the past two and a half years taking courses of no interest to me or relation to what I’d like to study. Perhaps I should have spent that time trying to publish something that didn’t matter to my future work, but frankly I was so disheartened that I spent most of my energy just convincing myself to stay in the program. With little faculty support and a massive, hard-to-navigate administration (who three years later still has my last name wrong), I passed these years in social and academic isolation. 

If the emotional toll that this system has on us is extraordinary, the anxiety is made even more accute by the exam process.
I don’t mind that PhD exams exist, of course. But I do mind that I’m responsible for the equivalent of 2 years of coursework in material that I’ve had to read on my own, outside of my classes. If courses don’t matter to my exams,  I shouldn’t have had to take them– or not four semesters’ worth, anyway. And now that I’m interested in pursuing digital humanities, I feel that I’ve run out of time to commit to classes on programming or other interdiciplinary integrations to my field.
The members of my exam committee have been extraordinarilly understanding about my situation, and I’m quite grateful for their support. Still, in a conversation about funding by, support in, and general funcitonality of higher education, my case illustrates the too-frequently ignored example of an outdated system that costs the university money and the students time– time that is especially precious to those who want to have families, and whose biological clock seems occasionally at odds with our professional plans.
I am not as productive (and by that I mean as published) as those who had the luxury of faculty support during their coursework years. Indeed, of the three medievalists in my cohort, I’m the only one who made it through to the exam stage. And now that I’m here, and now that I have a bit of support, I wonder if it will all be worth it in the end, given what so many people in the third year of their PhDs have already accomplished.
This is not a situation unique to my program or even my school. There needs to be a re-evaluation of what’s expected from PhDs and a re-assesment of how programs can position us to be successful– within and outside of our programs.
I call for a radical streamlining that promotes faculty-student interaction and mentorship, interdisciplinary graduate courses, and a plan of study tailored to students’ scholarly interests and professional goals. Such a system would be inherently and necessarily transparent; it would reduce administrative red tape and demystify the process of applying for fellowships or assistantships. This new system would require and reward mentorship by making it easier for students to participate in professors’ research or teaching. By inspiring and fostering collaboration, this system would make candidates and professors more productive and more valuable. 
Most importantly, a new system would help students spend less but better time in their programs. 

Until next time, stay radical, readers.


Thanks for returning, kind readers!

I’ve been delightfully busy: conference abstracts, baby showers, cross-country birthdays, digital humanities meetings, TEI presentations, Chaucer lectures, Chronicle mapping, and perhaps most importantly, becoming a HASTAC scholar

I’m thrilled to be joining “a network of individuals and institutions inspired by the possibilities that new technologies offer us for shaping how we learn, teach, communicate, create, and organize our local and global communities.”

As a scholar, I will “blog, host online forums, develop new projects and organize events…around rethinking pedagogy, learning, research & academia for the digital age.

I’ve just posted a couple of entries on their website, so I thought I ‘d try cross-posting myself, in the spirit of experimentation and sharing (it’s pasted below). 

Until soon, promising a much-sooner next time!

Pinterest. Instagram. Steampunk. Cosplay. Food trucks. Mumblecore. Anti-perfumes. World of Warcraft. Plus, typography goes shopping; Apple and value; True Blood and queer brand communities; and place-making and food ways at a Filipino restaurant near you (or not).”

What an opener, no?! Julia Lupton continues the blog post about her design and marketing courses here:
She really got me thinking about the connection between how and why I’ve been hoping to integrate new technologies into my own classroom.
I came to medieval literature through medieval architecture (thank you, Annabel Wharton), and I’ve maintained an interest in teaching my students about how we interact with texts as well as in space. In fact, I recently learned about a fascinating social sciences unit taught by some of my colleagues in first-year composition. During a few class visits to the Chapel Hill cemetery, students take notes on the gravestones, focusing on desciptive writing. They later read social science journals and ultimately write a conference paper on their own “reading” of the cemetery as cultural record. 
Professor Lupton’s courses focus on the newest technologies with which we interact;  the cemetery unit uses old stones and epitaphs as the objects of study. But is there a way to do both? If so, it seems that would involve more than just following an archaeologist on Twitter. But what would it look like for freshmen in college to conduct field research, engage in secondary readings, and join interdisciplinary (or at least multimedia) communities– all for an English class?
Like Lubpton, I “believe that courses in the writing and the humanities that engage with the designed world can matter immediately to how all of us make our livings, in the broadest possible sense.”
And at this stage, I’m wondering what I can do about it. 

On Onus of Ownership

I’ve enrolled in Fiona Somerset’s “Radical Textualities” at Duke this spring, and I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to get some real manuscript experience!  This week we are reading about variance, censorship, and the “great editions” of multi-layered medieval texts.  In an article resisting the bibliographic obsession of previous Wycliffite scholarship, Somerset writes: “In lollard textual culture’s mood of radical variance, every version of a text interpolates, excises, or modifies the content they have in common, or else lifts part of it into a different setting.  Often it is impossible to trace how the work developed, in its remaining copies.” She focuses on different kinds of books than others working in lollardy usually have; she therefore appropriately hones in on different modes of book production, “that began in the earliest phase of the [lollard] movement, but persisted when the more organized activity that produced large-scale collaborations in England had come to an end”whose “products are more idiosyncratic and decentralized… [and whose] most common venue of assembly is the personal or household anthology…” which was truly piecemeal.
As most of you know, I’ve had a hard time pinning down a dissertation topic/genre/century, but I do keep returning to manuscript work.  As most of you can imagine, this presents any scholar with the genuine issue of accessibility.  Although Duke and UNC have great collections, getting to them can be more difficult than first supposed.  I’ll come back to the accessibility problem soon.

We spent the first couple of classes hashing out ideas about cutting and pasting, remixing, refiguring, re-apropriating (and no, that’s not redundant here) manuscripts, printed books, and digital media.  Where do processes overlap?  What do reworking poetry or biblical exegesis, say, have to do with remixing music or other media?  And how does any of this matter now, and to whom?
A visual break from, to prevent any rabbit-hole vortex of crushingly deep ponderings on this topic:

Of course, central to these questions of remixing is ownership, which I like to distinguish from authorship.  Somerset articulates resistance to a bibliographic impulse in literary studies that coincides with a lesson I taught last week.  I assigned Hegel to my freshmen (muah-ha-ha) to get them into an appropriate mindset about the nature of the course.  I intentionally left off the title and the author so they wouldn’t just say “hey, this is boring/difficult/whatever– I’ll just Google it.”  Some of them, I found, had pasted in parts of the passage in order to identify the author, and we had an open conversation about this urge to know about the author in order to feel equipped to read the work.  Incidentally, this was the same day as the Wikipedia blackout– a coincidence whose coolness was sadly lost on some of them.  
Nevertheless, it seems that authorship is visiting some sort of vengeance upon me for all those papers I wrote that “killed the author.”  In a time when so much information is free, freely edited, and freely exchanged across different media, what does it mean to be an author, a commentator, a cut-and-paster, a plagiarist?  Authorship isn’t always ownership, and that could create great demands on all the other stewards of texts.  What do we owe to audience?  To the text’s author? And how much do economic elements of textual production affect its “authenticity” or reliability?  What does the author owe the rest of us?  How influential is money-making to text-making, and why?
Moreover, what are we to make of our transition from this:
No CTRL + C here.
to this?
Is free and full access even conceivable?  At what cost? 
How do we move between prosperity of resources nearly impossible to find (or even to know exist) in our world’s best libraries and responsible, equitable accessibility?
Bodleian curator, looking far too cool to let us see this book from the Mary Shelley exhibit.   

Could it be that those Stanford professors have it right after all?

Let’s do this thing

I’m determined to make this blog work.  Here we go again.

The semester has begun, and I’m on UNC, but not Duke, fall break.  At least I have Friday off!

Some non-academic highlights of the semester:
trying to get involved with Second Chance Pet Adoptions
helping pups get adopted through Middle Mutts (love-out to Nicole Fisk!)
chatting with Brianna about dresses
an amazing weekend in the mountains with Emily, etc.
planning a trip to DC (now postponed until December)
celebrating Tabitha’s first birthday with best sister-in-law of ALL time and Drew
started allergy shots– in a year my eyes might not be puffy all the time!

Teaching this semester has been rough, not least because my class starts at 8am.  And we all know how much of a morning person I’m not.  But I’ve also tried a lot of new things which have proven less productive than I’d hoped, like my visual analysis of comic books unit.

William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994

I had expected the rhetoric of news unit, which we’re in the middle of right now, to be better than it is, but it’s an improvement for sure.  Also, we’ve had our first round of conferences and I always feel like I have a little better grasp on things once I speak to everyone face-to-face.
Sadly, some of my students have had some serious issues, whether personal or physical, and that’s been hard to keep track of.  Nevertheless, they are all great, great kids who are tolerating this class admirably.

M Nagle, New York Times

I’ve really enjoyed my 17th century class at UNC, which is a total shock.  We started with Donne, who usually drives me crazy.  But somehow he was different this time, and that is no doubt due to Dr Barbour’s teaching. Un-freakin-believable, this guy.  I could listen (and watch– his lectures are highly dramatic) to him talk about anything.  He’s electric. Even our meetings are awesome.  He is the most thoroughly engaged, inspiring professor I’ve ever had, and has done more than accommodate me in a class that’s so many centuries ahead of my own interests.  I’m totally, totally stoked that he’ll be on my minor committee!

The Duke class is challenging, which I love.  Dr Aers leaves it all to us– here’s a recommended reading list, do what you will– and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of self-starting scholarship.  The seminar has warmed up a bit, though it’s still a bit awkward at times.  The biggest perk so far is that my new hero, Michael Cornett, gave a presentation on ALL the English (or Latin, written in England) confessions.  I emailed him to follow up and the man replied by sending me his entire nearly 900-page dissertation.  At this point in my career, every book I want to buy is close to $300, so getting his unpublished but invaluable research over my computer rocked my life.  He just sent me this damn thing, and then recommended a seminar paper topic!  Here’s the real closer, though.  He scanned a 16th century confession manuscript that follows quite closely an 8th century confessional prayer by Alcuin.  He sent me the images and I’m transcribing it now.

Speaking of book accessibility, I received my Kindle (and its burnt-orange cover) and am loving it!
More details on what I’m reading, how I’m cleaning up a massive, massive pen leak (courtesy of Tabitha) on two carpets, and how we’re spending the weekend to come.

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